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Illustration by Security Management; iStock

Breaching the U.S. Capitol’s Perimeter Security

On 6 January 2021, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and delayed a joint session of Congress that was in the process of certifying the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election results.

Five people were left dead, hundreds of people were injured—including more than 140 police officers—and $30 million in property damage occurred in the major breach of perimeter security. Numerous others at the Capitol that day were traumatized by the violence that unfolded at “the people’s house,” with four U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) officers dying by suicide following the incident.

After the attack, the U.S. Senate Committees on Rules and Administration and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs launched an investigation into the security posture of the Capitol leading up to the incident.

“The Committees’ investigation uncovered a number of intelligence and security failures leading up to and on January 6 that allowed for the breach of the Capitol,” their report said. “These breakdowns ranged from federal intelligence agencies failing to warn of a potential for violence to a lack of planning and preparation by USCP and law enforcement leadership.”

The congressional report made a series of recommendations to improve security assessments, planning, and execution at the Capitol, as well as analysis from a Capitol Security Task Force review, the architect of the Capitol, and more.

While the congressional report’s recommendations are focused on improving the security at the Capitol, there are lessons that the private sector can learn from the incident and use to improve their own perimeter security.

“There was a lot of information that was not translated to the units on the ground and into construction of adequate physical security measures,” says Tony McGinty, CPP, co-chair of the ASIS Extremism and Political Instability Community.

Setting the Scene

Founded in 1828, the USCP has more than 2,300 officers and civilian employees on staff and is responsible for protecting Congress, the public, and the U.S. Capitol complex, according to a USCP fact sheet. The complex consists of roughly 20 buildings across two square miles in Washington, D.C., including the Library of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

Along with the USCP, the Senate Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper, the House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms, and the Architect of the Capitol all share responsibility in protecting and securing the Capitol complex, with the USCP at the forefront of these efforts as the sole federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction. The House and Senate Sergeants at Arms and the Architect of the Capitol also serve on the Capitol Police Board, which oversees USCP.

“The type of policing [USCP does] is unlike any other police department,” said Steven Sund, USCP chief on 6 January who resigned 7 January in testimony before Congress in 2019. “It is highly specialized to focus on the unique requirements of protecting [the] legislative process and the First Amendment rights of our citizens, maintaining an open and accessible campus, and preventing crime and terrorism. Our daily reality is that the U.S. Capitol remains a desired target for assailants both domestic and foreign.”

Following the U.S. presidential election in November 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump said he planned to contest the results—which declared his challenger, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the winner. Trump’s supporters planned a “Save America” rally for 6 January 2021 at the White House Ellipse, and Trump announced he would speak at the event.

On 6 January, USCP demonstration updates obtained by Congress noted that 25,000 to 30,000 people were at the Ellipse for the rally while other individuals were headed towards the Capitol complex. More rally-goers joined these individuals after Trump’s speech, where he encouraged them to go to the Capitol where members of the House and Senate were conducting a joint session to certify the election results.

At the Capitol, USCP units were standing guard inside a perimeter made up of metal bicycle racks. This perimeter line, however, was quickly overrun by demonstrators, and a USCP inspector ordered a lockdown of the Capitol while USCP Chief Sund requested assistance from the U.S. Secret Service and put in a request with the USCP Board for National Guard support.

“After overrunning USCP’s security perimeter on the West Front of the building, rioters pressed towards the Capitol building—climbing the inaugural platform and scaling walls,” according to the congressional report. “The only remaining security perimeter consisted of the USCP officers positioned around the grounds, who were overwhelmed and outnumbered.”

Roughly an hour later, rioters breached the first-floor windows on the Capitol’s south side—allowing them to enter the building. Vice President Mike Pence and other congressional leaders were evacuated from their respective chambers to secure locations. The mob continued to make its way into the Capitol, including attempting to lift a woman—Ashli Babbitt—through an opening into the House chamber, causing a USCP officer to open fire and kill her. USCP officers then barricaded the House doors with furniture and drew their weapons to hold off rioters until all members could be evacuated from the House chamber at 2:57 p.m.

Reinforcements from U.S. federal agencies—including the FBI—and local authorities began to arrive after 3:00 p.m. at the Capitol to help extract and secure staff. At 5:20 p.m., D.C. National Guard personnel arrived at the Capitol; by 6:14 p.m., USCP, the National Guard, and the Metropolitan Police Department (Washington, D.C.’s police force) had reestablished a security perimeter on the west side of the Capitol. The complex was declared secure at 8:00 p.m., and Congress returned to certify the election results.

The Investigations

After the attack, the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Homeland Security Committee began an investigation into what happened on 6 January, how the security perimeter was breached, and improvements that would be necessary to prevent a similar attack in the future. The committees issued their findings in June 2021, outlining a variety of failures that led to the perimeter security breach.

The first findings were focused on intelligence failures; despite calls on social media and other Internet forums for violence at the Capitol on 6 January, neither the FBI nor the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a threat assessment warning of the potential for violence. 

“FBI and DHS officials stressed the difficulty in discerning constitutionally protected free speech versus actionable, credible threats of violence,” the committees’ report said. “In testimony before the committees, officials from both FBI and DHS acknowledged that the Intelligence Community needs to improve its handling and dissemination of threat information from social media and online message boards.”

Additionally, the USCP’s intelligence components did not convey the “full scope of threat information they possessed.” It also did not adequately prepare to prevent or respond to security threats on 6 January, such as crafting a departmentwide operational plan for the joint session that included a comprehensive staffing plan that would detail where officers should be.

“USCP leadership also failed to provide front-line officers with effective protective equipment or training,” the committees found. “Although USCP activated seven specialty Civil Disturbance Unit platoons in advance of the joint session, only four of those platoons were outfitted with special protective equipment, including helmets, hardened plastic armor, and shields. The many other USCP officers who fought to defend the Capitol were left to do so in their daily uniforms.”

USCP also did not make equipment available to be retrieved during the attack, did not authorize platoons to use all available less-than-lethal munitions to push back rioters, or communicate clearly during the attack.

The committees also found that the opaque bureaucratic structure for the USCP to request assistance from the National Guard delayed its ability to obtain quick reinforcements, as well as prevented the National Guard from being activated, staged, and prepared to respond on 6 January—if needed.

“These failures resulted in an unnecessary delay in the arrival of National Guard troops to assist in defending the Capitol from an armed insurrection,” said U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), chair of the Senate Rules Committee. “The Guard should have been, of course, called in before this started as the intelligence was gathered and there should have been a plan to use the Guard, but even that day, they could have been called in sooner.”

The committees recommended a variety of steps for security improvement, including empowering the USCP chief to request assistance from the D.C. National Guard in emergency situations; improving training, equipment, intelligence collection, and operational planning for the USCP; and that intelligence agencies review and evaluate their criteria for issuing and communicating intelligence assessments.

“These scenarios and plans should detail what level of DOD or D.C. National Guard assistance may be required, what equipment would be needed for responding personnel, and the plan for command-and-control during the response,” the committees said.

In addition to the committees’ report, USCP Inspector General Michael Bolton issued a series of flash reports to communicate recommendations in response to the 6 January breach and mirrored some of the recommendations from Congress.

For instance, Bolton also suggested that USCP implement detailed guidance for operational planning to include policies and procedures for designating entities responsible for operational planning and execution processes.

Bolton also said that USCP needs to enact a cultural change to take a more proactive approach to security. In his testimony before Congress, Bolton explained that “the department needs to move away from the thought process as a traditional police department and move to the posture as a protective agency. A police department is geared to being reactive. A crime is committed; police respond and make an arrest. Whereas, a protective agency is postured to being proactive to prevent events such as January 6th.”

Making changes to how the USCP gathers, assesses, and communicates threat intelligence could help with this shift to making the security force more prepared, says McGinty, who previously worked in the intelligence division for the Metropolitan Police Department.

It’s important for any organization to have a threat intelligence resource—whether in-house or under contract—that can monitor social media and other channels, McGinty explains, which can then inform what steps need to be taken to ensure an event does not spiral out of control.

“At the U.S. Capitol, they had a lot of intel sitting on their desk,” McGinty says. “The problem is, they have to be able to supply that threat intelligence to inform security policies” and that has to be “translated into a tactical response on the ground.”

And that communication channel can’t be just sending an email. When the information that needs to be communicated is serious, a phone call is warranted.

When threat intelligence is part of the planning process, security professionals can assess the seriousness of the threat and enact protection measures to mitigate it. For instance, they can set up anti-riot fencing to create a perimeter line and develop a staffing plan to ensure that security personnel are less likely to be overrun.

Officers should also be adequately supplied with protection equipment—shields, helmets, face guards, and non-lethal weapons to be used to disperse crowds, if necessary. “You have to equip them so they feel confident in a violent situation,” McGinty adds. “When you have a helmet and shield, it gives you a lot more confidence and makes a huge difference in the ability to stand post.”

Security managers also need to ensure that communication lines are open, monitored, and being responded to quickly should a situation escalate and officers need reinforcement. McGinty also says that if the threat intelligence suggests a situation might become violent, medical personnel—such as EMTs—should be staged nearby. Security officers should also be given first aid packs to keep on their person.

“If someone’s injured, then have an egress route out of the site where they can get professional medical care,” McGinty says. “People were injured [at the Capitol] in ways that we haven’t seen in D.C. in a while, but that all goes back to proper planning.”

Moving Forward

In September 2021, a former Trump campaign staffer organized a rally outside of the Capitol dubbed Justice for J6 to support those arrested and charged for their involvement in the 6 January assault.

The security response to the rally, however, would be drastically different. USCP placed anti-riot fencing around the perimeter of the Capitol complex the week before the rally, the Metropolitan Police Department had all personnel on standby, and USCP officers would be properly fitted with their riot gear and staged around the perimeter.

“This time they are literally not going to be allowed to enter the grounds of the Capitol,” says Joshua Sinai, professor of practice, counterterrorism studies, Capitol Technology University, who has studied attacks on buildings as part of his research. “All of [the rally attendees] are going to be watched closely.”

Additionally, Sinai says there is increased monitoring of extremist groups that were present at the 6 January attack—including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers—that may make individuals less likely to attend future rallies for fear of arrest.

“Terrorists have the advantage when they are the hunters,” Sinai says. “Once they become the hunted, it’s very difficult for them to carry out operations. They’ve turned from being the hunters into the hunted.”

And given the recent memory of the 6 January attacks, Sinai says local businesses and organizations on Capitol Hill will be on alert for future rallies with their security departments taking more proactive measures—especially as the Capitol itself is more fortified.

“Another iconic target in the area would generate lots and lots of headlines,” Sinai says. “One of the objectives of terrorists is to cause loss of life and injury, but also to spread fear and panic and anxiety throughout society. A local incident becomes magnified. And if it happens in Washington, it could happen in my community in Indiana.”

The USCP declined to comment on this story.

Megan Gates is editor-in-chief of Security Technology. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @mgngates.